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Michelle Obama Discusses her Inspirational New Book, ʻThe Light We Carry’

The former first lady explains how to overcome challenges — and the importance of ‘starting kind’

Former First Lady Michelle Obama
NAACP via Getty Images

Michelle Obama’s new book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, is less a memoir — like her 2018 hit, Becoming — than an inspirational guide. Describing the emotional “tools” she uses to steady herself in the face of challenges and offering personal anecdotes to bolster her advice, she encourages readers to tap their courage, creativity and conviction in service of their own well-being and our collective good.

“One light feeds another,” Obama writes. “One strong family lends strength to more. One engaged community can ignite those around it. This is the power of the light we carry.”

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The author, who has begun a monthlong book-promotion tour featuring some high-profile moderators (Conan O’Brien and David Letterman among them) recently spoke with AARP by phone. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Now you’re back in the public eye with your second book. How did you restore yourself and get game ready to do this all over again?

I don’t know that I am game ready. We’re going to see. But look, I’m coming out of the same place as most people around not just the country but the world. The past two years have been draining in [unimaginable] ways. We’ve been faced with COVID and quarantined from each other. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of division in our politics. We’ve seen protest [against] injustice and for fair criminal justice process. We’ve seen an insurrection at our nation’s capitol. And all of that has left me, as it has everyone else, a bit shaken.

I had to find a way to unravel the racing thoughts. This book is my offering, and we’ll see. My hope is that it does start a conversation about how we settle ourselves in inevitable uncertainty. We live in a complex world. There’s a lot that we cannot control. But we have to learn to adapt. We’ve got to keep our mental health in order through the flux. How do we do that? I’m still trying to get my mind right.      

You suggest that age has brought wisdom.

The older I get, the more patience I have with [life’s] ups and downs, because you start seeing patterns. You’re realizing that we’re not in control and that, sometimes, we just have to settle into the uncertainty. That doesn’t mean being complacent. It doesn’t mean accepting injustices. But with maturity, you’re able to put things into context.

You also share about your dad, Fraser C. Robinson III. You recall watching him use a tool and what that taught you about being different and adapting. Would you like to speak about that?

I open with the story of my father’s cane. He had, as I call it, visibility from within, in spite of all of his challenges: his physical challenge [multiple sclerosis]; the fact that he was a Black man without a college degree in a world that would look down upon a working-class man who walked with crutches. He was able to turn his differences, to use his tools, to be more visible than anybody I’ve known.

I talk about the motto he lived by: “You fall, you get up, you move forward.” When I confront otherness, when I’m feeling unseen … when I face disappointment, when I have to look down the barrel of my own fear and overcome failure … I think about those words. He also [taught] that you don’t wait for others to see you. He and my mother, they raised me to see myself, to bat away some of the haters, to change some of those negative images, to turn those “despites” into something powerful, to appreciate what made me unique.

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You write that “being different conditions you toward cautiousness, even as it demands that you be bold.” Is that a paradox you witnessed growing up?

I witnessed it throughout my life. I talk about my experience at Princeton University, feeling out of place as a Black student in a predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly wealthy environment. At times, I felt like no one saw me, but the truth is that they probably didn’t.

I talk about how students of color were routinely stopped by police officers who didn’t think they belonged. I had a roommate that I later found out moved out of my room because her mother didn’t want her living with a Black student. All of those little indignities that you know are there, they’re real. We have to own the truth of that, but we also can’t be self-conscious about it. We can’t carry it with us into every room, because it keeps us from bringing our authentic selves to the table.

Do inequities play a role in whether we feel seen?

Absolutely. That’s part of what has so many of us so angry, because we don’t have the kind of education systems we need. People don’t have stable incomes and jobs. They don’t feel secure in themselves. It’s easy to point the finger at somebody else, at the other, the thing that’s new and different and to say, “You’re my problem.” The truth is that we’re all struggling now, especially in this economy, especially after two years in lockdown, especially after the losses, the supply chains being disrupted. But if some people feel like their pain isn’t valued, if their pain isn’t seen, then it’s easier to blame somebody else.

That’s why I talk about keeping our worlds big. Making sure that we are incorporating the views of people who aren’t like us, so we can’t so easily be divided and demonize one another.

Empathy is born of interaction.

You write about “starting kind.” What do you mean?

“Starting kind” means starting to be kind to yourself. It [can be] difficult to look in the mirror and accept what is staring back at you. But that’s a powerful place to start, with just greeting yourself with some level of gladness. It takes practice, because we are our harshest critics. We can all do a better job at it, me included. Sometimes we don’t see our ability to be a model to somebody else. We don’t value the tools that we have. One of the core messages in the book is the power of the light we carry. Once we have it, we see it, we’re able to give it to somebody else.

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One place that you can count on being seen is what you call your kitchen table. Who’s at your kitchen table?

It is a motley crew of amazing women … women who helped me raise my girls, women who helped me deliver my children. They’re mentors and people that I’ve looked up to. My mother’s at my kitchen table. There are other mothers that I’ve met here in Washington, D.C., who helped me keep my girls’ lives normal, providing them with a haven outside of the White House where they could just be kids. They are my mentees who are now grown women in their own careers. My kitchen table is broad, with diverse races and ages. It is one of my most powerful tools.

It sounds like you all have a lot of fun too.

For me, [the key] to having a broad and steady kitchen table is intentionality. We plan our fun. We put our time as friends on our calendars. From people I encounter, and studies that I’ve read, [I’ve been surprised at the] unprecedented levels of loneliness. The extent to which people report not having friends at all, I think that has a lot to do with the social media age.

It’s not just the pandemic, but I think we get out of practice of [having] in-real-life relationships and extending ourselves to make them. Of being a little uncomfortable about introducing ourselves and going out of our way to connect and then to sustain those connections. I want my girls, I want the next generation, to understand that friendships have to be prioritized. Yes, have a career. Yes, build your family. But a career doesn’t sustain you as you age and your children grow up and move on.

When you are our age and older, what keeps you going is that kitchen table. I see it in my mother, 85 years old. She has regular visits with her remaining living sister and brother. She does her Zoom workout. She goes to the hair salon. She comes to visit us, and there is vibrancy and adaptability in my mother at 85 years old, which [relates] to her ability to stay connected.

You mentioned your daughters, Sasha and Malia. They’re living their own lives on the West Coast. How are you and your husband adjusting to being empty nesters?

We are great, because guess what? We have lives. And our main job as parents is making sure that we raise independent individuals. It is gratifying to see my kids thriving, starting to create their own circle of friends and to learn how to “adult,” as they say. I don’t feel a loss. I’ve just gained two more amazing, permanent members of my kitchen table.

For more on Michelle Obama, read our story on her relaxing new hobby and five things we learned from the book.